The role of traditional leadership in facilitating and inhibiting women’s political participation


By Irene Kalulu

Women in politics face a number of challenges particularly in patriarchal societies as they have to overcome gendered behavioural expectations daily in order to freely participate in politics.

A number of interventions and strategies have been developed worldwide all in an effort to balance gender disparities in politics. Political participation demands the freedom to speak out and participate in public affairs but traditional norms and practices sometimes inhibit women from participating in politics. Traditional leaders have the authority to make the process harder or easier for women.

Zhombe East Chief, Ntabazinduna Wait Gwesela said that he accepts and assists women who want to join the political arena and he does not discriminate against them.

“Women can take up political leadership and we support them fully. The only place where we do not allow women to lead are rain making ceremonies and for women to go underground when mining. Those two are taboo and traditionally women are not allowed but there is nothing wrong with them pursuing politics,” the Chief said.

Chief Gwesela added that most households are led by women who have to provide for the family and this shows that they are more than capable of leading in any other field. He pointed out that women actually make better leaders and it is his desire that more women would take up political office.

“We know that if more women take up these positions things will change for the better because they are less corrupt, are honest and their motherly instincts make them desire inclusive development,” he said.

Yet women continue to face challenges in penetrating the political field.

Catherine Mhondiwa, the MDC Councillor for Ward 13, Mkoba in Gweru said that men think that once a woman gets married she should not venture into politics but stay at home and take care of her family.

“We face a lot of criticism from society with most men saying we have nothing to offer in politics,” she said.

Councillor Mhondiwa said that not all traditional leaders are prepared to support women in politics, some think women are second class citizens who are supposed to be submissive. She pointed out that some traditional leaders even quote the Bible and tell them that it confirms that a woman is not supposed to lead but stay at home and have as many children as possible.

However, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) states all appropriate measures must be taken to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life. It further states that women should be on equal terms with men in the right to participate in the formulation of government policy and implementation and to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government.

The under-representation of women at any level of decision-making results in democratic deficit, as diverse groups make better decisions.

Honourable Perseverance Zhou, Kwekwe Proportional Representation MP concurred that some of the traditional roles that she has observed that inhibit participation of women were beliefs that women were too soft to lead in politics and should put more focus in the kitchen.

Added to this is the stereotype that women who take up politics are immoral. The more women take up leadership positions, the more other women would be encouraged to enter into what is perceived as the male domain.

According to a study conducted in India, the increased proportion of women village leaders had closed the aspiration gap between girls and boys by nearly 25 percentage points and had eventually erased or reversed the gender gap in educational outcomes. The study further states that girls also began spending less time on household activities in areas with increased women’s leadership in the village.

Kudzai Kwangwari, a Social Commentator and Development Practitioner said that the current crop of traditional leaders are not ready to accept women in politics at the grassroots or national level. He said they may pretend to accept women in politics because of political reasons but many are not comfortable.

“Zimbabwe is a very patriarchal society and a woman is starting from a minus until she gets to the ground and starts being visible. Women should start being groomed and engaged at a very tender age so that it becomes part of life. At schools and within families, we need to groom girls so that society gets used to seeing them leading. In the absence of these strategies we will continue to struggle with a patriarchal society. All agents of socialisation need to be targeted and groom women as leaders so that it becomes an everyday thing,” said Kwangwari.

These views were echoed by Jenifer Shuvai Makombe Matake, District Coordinator for Small Help Development Foundation (SHDF) an organisation that works with and empowers women at the grassroots level. She said that it is apparent that most traditional leaders are not ready to accept women in politics at the grassroots level as most say it’s not culturally acceptable for a woman to stand and speak before men. She also noted that when it comes to campaigning women are at a disadvantage as men have more resources at their disposal to campaign and take advantage of beer drinking spots where in rural set ups women do not go to. “Women should continue fighting for their space, why should the political arena be any different when women have been leading for centuries in all other respects?

Interviews carried out by this reporter showed that members of the public believe that traditional roles and norms inhibit more than facilitate women’s political participation.

“In our culture, a woman leading or participating in politics is a taboo. Those who try to penetrate into politics are not treated equally because of gender stereotypes. Society needs to be educated more on the importance of women political participation as this can remove some of the barriers,” said Priscilla Mupfeki.

She went on to say that people should know that women are just as capable as men and can face any challenge had on.

“Our Constitution clearly states that men and women are equal and we have equal rights to participate in politics. We have to respect each other and give each gender equal opportunities,” she said.

Mandy Kanyemba said that traditional leaders are deeply entrenched in patriarchal beliefs and practices and firmly belief a woman’s place is in the kitchen not political arena.

She said that there is need for more advocacy programmes to teach traditional leaders like Chiefs and Village heads the importance of inclusivity for both genders in politics.

“Most of the traditional leaders are old and it’s very hard for them to embrace changing trends in culture,” she said.

She also added that at the political grassroots level women and men are not treated the same. Women are mainly there to cheer on and support men, they are expected to cook and dance as men campaign. Mandy said that gender equality should be across all levels of society not just in urban centres.

Women who would be invaluable in the political arena are being rejected before they make any progress because of traditional, societal and cultural barriers.